When it announced Resident Evil 7, developer Capcom said it intended to take its long-running franchise “back to its horror roots.” In the first real glimpse of the game, a demo called Resident Evil 7: Beginning Hour, that’s partially true.
Shown at E3 2016 in Los Angeles, the demo is as much a big step forward for Resident Evil as it is a look back at its history. It brings players back to the kind of experience that first distinguished the series: a haunted house just dripping with oppressive, frightening atmosphere, and filled with puzzles to solve to open the way to escape. Players in the demo are defenseless against any threats as they slowly plod through the house, trying to find a way out, hoping that whatever just made that scraping-thud in the distance isn’t coming for them.
And while horror roots might be the idea, this isn’t a usual Resident Evil title.
REvisiting the past, thinking about the future
The biggest change is in presentation, with all of Resident Evil 7, not just Beginning Hour, playing from a first-person viewpoint — that is, through the eyes of the character, instead of hovering over their shoulder the way games in the series normally do. It’s clear that Resident Evil 7 is drawing inspiration from its contemporaries, at least in terms of this demo but seemingly likely in the full game. And the biggest influence has to be the “playable teaser” created by Konami to announce its now-defunct new survival-horror game, Silent Hills.
At E3, the ‘Resident Evil 7’ demo was a full sensory creepfest.
PT, as it was called, was a demo meant to whet appetites for a Silent Hill title directed by Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima. It was another plodding horror game in a haunted house, full of puzzles, but it struggled under the weight of being more gimmick than game, purposely obtuse and off-putting to the point of killing its scares with long, mundane stretches of nothing. Resident Evil 7 learns the best lessons from PT, borrowing the slow pace, the oppression, and the emphasis on puzzling your way through, while tossing out the annoying obscurity.
At E3, the Resident Evil 7 demo was a full-sensory creepfest. The house around the player is constantly making strange noises, but there are many that can’t be attributed to rats in the walls or old boards settling. There is something here, in this house, and that constant knowledge forces you to quicken your pace as you try to find your way out. Walking forward using a PlayStation 4 controller, you must push your way forward through half-opened doors, basically leading the way into the next room with your face — an expert riff on the vulnerability created by old Resident Evil games’ door-opening cutscenes, which served both to load upcoming rooms and to create palpable tension as you worry what might be just beyond.
Where Beginning Hour excels is in its brevity. You can find your way through the demo relatively quickly, and unlike PT, you’re always making clear forward progress. Starting in a room with a glowing TV and attached VCR, clearly suggesting there will be evidence to uncover shortly, it’s a short trip down an outside hallway to discover a large kitchen. Along the way are hints and puzzle pieces — a fuse box missing a fuse, a locked drawer begging for a key, a disembodied mannequin finger that shows up in a drawer and gets pulled into your inventory, as if you’re jamming it into your pocket because you never know.
The kitchen seems long since abandoned, with disgusting food covering its tables and cockroaches scurrying out when you open a pot or check the fridge. Popping open the microwave reveals a roasted raven. The entire demo foregoes gore for rot, leaving that slight inkling of hope: Maybe there’s no one here; maybe it really is just abandoned.
Of course, it isn’t, and Beginning Hour sprinkles in a few jump scares and ominous moments to keep you on your toes. Past the kitchen is a locked pantry roped in chains, and beyond that, a room where someone butchered two large sides of beef seemingly weeks ago. There, players can discover bolt-cutters to get through the chains, and inside the pantry, a video tape. Ah-ha!
Here things start to ramp up as the demo messes with you even more. The sounds of some other person just ahead reverberate through the house. There’s nowhere to hide and nothing to fight back with, and seeing only one path forward, you carefully push open the door back to the room where your character first woke up, hoping to play the video tape without being murdered in the meantime.
With the tape in, Beginning Hour takes a page from found footage films like VHS. You’re watching three people, the film crew of a TV show about ghost-hunting, enter the same house where you find yourself. The player then takes on the role of the camera man — you’re both watching what happened to these three, and participating. The tape is full of clues about the demo, both about what is happening to you (the you who’s watching the video), and about how to get out of the house. When the people on the tape discover a secret passage, you’re clued in to its location, as well as a way forward.
Slathered in secrets
Capcom released Resident Evil 7: Beginning Hour to the PlayStation Store as a free download for subscribers to Sony’s PlayStation Plus (without VR, of course), and players have already discovered there’s more to find than just the simplest path to the exit. Like PT, Beginning Hour is deeper, inviting players to investigate and work together to discover its mysteries, even though it’s built to amp up the frights if you choose a longer stay.
It’s hard to say how indicative Resident Evil: Beginning Hour is of the full Resident Evil 7 experience. Capcom reps at E3 told Digital Trends that Beginning Hour is a prologue to set up the story of the game, and none of what’s here will be included in the full release of Resident Evil 7. The game itself will be canon to the rest of the Resident Evil series, but it won’t star a known protagonist. Capcom said the Resident Evil team wants players to feel vulnerable and tense, and didn’t want to put them back in the role of one of the nigh unkillable badasses of the franchise, like Leon S. Kennedy or Claire Redfield. In addition, the character players control in Beginning Hour isn’t the same character they’ll control in Resident Evil 7.
On PlayStation VR, it’s clear that the PlayStation 4’s power is being tested in Beginning Hour, and the game is decidedly uglier than if you were playing it on a normal TV — resolution is usually a casualty to the necessity of needing to render one screen for each eye in the headset, and both at higher than 90 frames per second. Because it controls the way a normal first-person game would, with the ability to strafe sideways while looking ahead, Beginning Hour also could definitely stir up those waves of motion sickness that plague virtual reality games right now.
But those issues feel like quibbles for what was mostly a strong, immersive, often-chilling experience. The power of VR is in feeling surrounded by the game experience, and Beginning Hour takes full advantage of that effect by keeping you feeling as if you’re about to be assaulted from any direction by unknown horrors.
Capcom’s direction for Resident Evil 7 is a refreshing mix of modern ideas that permeate the horror genre, which is full of first-person games about being defenseless, and the puzzle-solving mystery and powerful atmosphere of the franchise’s early titles. Combining those two elements with the claustrophobic, inescapable nature of VR seems like a track to create a new Resident Evil experience that’ll excite fans of the franchise, as well as those saddened that PT never managed to become anything more than a playable teaser.
Resident Evil 7 is set to hit shelves in January 2017.